Back in 2016, film director Tom Dumican and producer Jesse Lichtenstein came to Sheffield Doc/Fest’s MeetMarket to pitch their then untitled project about the Idaho followers of Christ, a religious community that rejects any kind of medical intervention and instead practices faith healing on their children. In June 2018, Dumican’s now completed and critically acclaimed feature-film directorial debut No Greater Law had its European premiere as part of Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Film programme.
We spoke with Tom Dumican about his work, the artistic and financial challenges of documentary filmmaking, being a neutral storyteller, and why religion and faith is a fascinating topic.
M.E - How did you hear about the Idaho followers of Christ and what drew you to this story?
T.D - I became obsessed with making ‘No Greater Law’ after meeting Linda Martin, a former member of the Followers of Christ, who grew up in the Boise church in Idaho. Linda had amassed a stack of evidence that documented how hundreds of children in the north west of the United States had been allowed to die from what many would consider treatable conditions - things like pneumonia, diabetes and food poisoning - because their parents believed in healing by prayer and rejected modern medicine as sorcery.
In Idaho, a religious shield law introduced in the 1970s prevented law enforcement from investigating these deaths as neglect cases so the parents and church elders escaped any form of criminal punishment or interference from the state. Religious freedom was valued higher than the rights of children. From the outside looking in, it seemed an extraordinary, disturbing and heart-breaking situation and one I wanted to understand more about.
M.E- Throughout the film, you refrain from taking a clear stance against this community which is under scrutiny for having an extremely high rate of child mortality. Can you elaborate on this choice of neutrality on your behalf, as a documentary filmmaker and from a personal point of view? Do you think the story speaks for itself and against this community, or do you think it poses more complex ethical choices than it might appear at first?
T.D - From the outset, I knew I wanted to make a film that was provocative, nuanced and embraced the complexities of the issue. Having access to such a strong set of characters, all with different viewpoints and motivations, made it an easy and early decision not to feature my own personal opinions or feature me as an on screen character.
For me, it was about telling the story through the eyes of the people living it and treating everyone with empathy. In Sheriff Donahue we had a character that was religious and ultra conservative, yet believed wholeheartedly that the parents who let their children die from medical neglect should be held to account and prosecuted as criminals. That seemed a much more fertile and fascinating area to explore in a film, than having, for instance, a liberal atheist as the antagonist to the church members in the story.
In the edit it was about taking the audience on the journey I experienced after two years in Idaho. Throughout the production there were moments when I thought I understood the motivations of the characters and had a clear viewpoint – then something would happen, and take me to a different place, and I wanted the audience to feel that, especially at the end of the film.
M.E - Documentaries about faith and religion, especially in its more extreme forms of expression seem to be quite popular these days: in the light of today’s climate, why do you think such subject matters are so fascinating and relevant? What does it say about American and, more generally, contemporary western societies’ relation to religion?
T.D - I’ve made films about religious cults in ancient Rome and Egypt, modern messiahs in Siberia, Israel and the jungles of the Philippines, Wahhabisim in the Middle East and followed a four-year-old preacher in Mississippi before making ‘No Greater Law’, - so you could say I’m obsessed with these stories about religious freedom, extreme faith and the search for utopia. I think many people all over the world share my fascination, for all sorts of reasons, and have done for millennia.
In America, the story of religion and the search for utopia is the story of the country itself. What’s perhaps emerging now, and why cults and extreme faith seem to be having their moment in the cultural spotlight again, is that we are becoming an increasingly secular society in the West, especially in major cities and that will inevitably lead to more conflict and tension about the limits of religious freedom. In Idaho, there appeared to be a severe lack of tolerance or compromise from both sides on the faith healing issue, and perhaps that’s not surprising given the life and death stakes involved, but I think that’s being replicated in other areas of debate and discourse surrounding religion. We are becoming more polarized and in many ways the lines between church and state have never been so blurry on some issues, and that’s causing a rising sense of anxiety for campaigners and people with an interest in equality and human rights.
M.E - You paint a very complete and insightful picture of the divide, by giving voice to all parties involved, from members of the communities to ex-worshipers who have been abused and state officials with opposing views on the matter. How did you approach these different parties, and how did you get them to talk about this controversial issue in such candid terms?
T.D - Due to the incendiary nature of the subject matter and previous media on the issue, everyone was very wary of us. They all had a kind of default rhetoric that kicked in whenever we were around with the camera. Our job was to break through that. We wanted to hit the underlying emotion of what they were feeling and experiencing, and not hear their everyday protocol or standard media answers.
We got our first introduction to the Followers of Christ through a local politician but understandably, they were reticent about going on camera, especially the parents who’d lost children. Getting access to law enforcement, ex- members, anti-faith healing activists and politicians on both sides of the aisle was relatively straightforward; all it took was a couple of face-to-face meetings. Getting the active church members themselves onside took an entire year of patience, writing letters, taking meetings, going to baptisms, having dinner with the elders –before they’d agree to go on camera. In the end, it all came down to their faith: they said they’d pray and wait for a sign from God before committing to allowing the cameras on their property.
M.E - Can you talk a bit about the process of making the film? What challenges did you face, when raising finance? What were the most testing steps of the process?
T.D - The biggest challenge was initially getting the production up and running before a production company, studio or funder came on board. I spent a year developing the film and its access with Oregon based producer Jesse Lichtenstein and journalist Shane Dixon Kavanagh, while I worked jobs in the UK that would allow me to self-finance the first shooting block, as we couldn’t secure any grant or development money. It was a financial risk, and a lot of weeks without funding for a dedicated team but it allowed us to create a 10-minute reel that would show potential funders the strength and depth of the story, its characters and the style I wanted to shoot in.
Once Pulse Films and A&E IndieFilms became involved the full production became a reality quite quickly and we were given the support to go out and spend as much time in Idaho as we needed.
During filming it was tough for everybody, especially the active and ex-members of the Followers of Christ, they were kind of like whistle-blowers in their own community – nobody wanted them to speak to us, not even their wives, brothers and children. I respect that they put themselves on the line in order to tell their story.
Being around families and law enforcement who were dealing with babies and children who had just passed away, and in many instances could have been easily saved, was the hardest thing. We tried to prepare for it but that was basically impossible. Sometimes you have to put the camera down and take a moment to walk through the morality and ethics of what you’re doing.
M.E - What are the key lessons that you learnt from making this film, and what words of advice would you give aspiring documentary filmmakers?
T.D - I’m going to defer to the wisdom here of No Greater Law’s central characters, Sheriff Kieran Donahue and faith healing patriarch Dan Sevy. In their words…
“Filming isn’t rocket science, we’re not reinventing the wheel here, and for you guys to sit back and say oh jeez it’s really complex, I just don’t know what we can do, I know what you can do. Do your damn job. That’s what you can do. Its simple, I do my job every damn day.”
“You can't serve two masters. You have to serve the production first and with all your heart and all you mind, and all your soul.”
No Greater Law, UK/USA, 2018, 89 minutes, English.
Director: Tom Dumican
Producer: Jesse Lichtenstein
Production company: Pulse Films
Sales: Isabel Davis, UK Film Council
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